Loss of Hampton doomed Navy

Brian Hampton (AP Photo/Bob Child)

Trying to explain how much losing Brian Hampton hurt Navy on Saturday brought me to a passage from John Feinstein's book "The Last Amateurs." Then-Navy basketball coach Don DeVoe delayed announcing a captain in 1998-99 because his three seniors had violated a team rule, I believe regarding drinking (they had been caught celebrating the 21st birthday of one of the players).

Feinstein wrote that not having a captain right away hurt DeVoe, because at the Naval Academy, it is of the utmost important that everyone know who is "The Man;" that everyone know who is the leader and whose example to follow.

Well, even though he wasn't a captain, my guess is Brian Hampton had become "the man" on the football team this year. It was impossible to ignore his courage when running right into the teeth of the defenses against ECU and Air Force; they knew he was coming, everyone in the stands knew what was coming, and Hampton still made yards out of it and led Navy to victory.

He took a physical beating in those games.

He also turned the Stanford and UConn. games in Navy's favor with very good decisions on the option and, against UConn, with good passing. What at the time looked like very difficult road trips instead were relatively comfortable wins.

I've been fortunate enough to have followed Navy football closely since the early 1980s. The only injury that I come up that is close to the horror and shock of Hampton's injury is Napoleon McCallum's broken ankle and torn ligaments against Virginia in the final minutes of an early season game in 1984.

Paul Johnson credited Rutgers several times after the game, but he added that the air seemed to come out of the team when Hampton was hurt. That certainly sounded right to me.

I've seen the 70-7 loss to Georgia Tech, the loss to North Carolina State in 2002, losses to Division I-AA The Citadel and James Madison in 1989, last-second losses to Army, etc. But none of those games left me with the same feeling I had following Saturday.

The Georgia Tech game was miserable, but post-game reaction was equal measures frustration with Weatherbie and counting the days until Brian Madden's comeback against Northwestern (though as we all know, that comeback was delayed a bit).

The NC State game was a blowout. But it was Johnson's first year, and it was a really good NC State team. Rivers, McLendon, Holt, on one level it was a pleasure to watch those guys. I think that was the same team that did a number on Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl.

Gary McIntosh, from my high school, started against The Citadel in 1989. As I recall, though, the game had a feel-good factor since the night before, much of South Carolina--including near The Citadel's campus--had been hit hard by a hurricane. No doubt The Citadel players used it as motivation, and it clearly added to their celebrations afterward.

I was on the sideline for the JMU game. I remember Grizzard kept shouting to the offense, "c'mon guys, this is JMU!" every time they came off the field. I remember seeing Grizzard in civvies after the game (and being surprised he was wearing skateboarding sneakers) and feeling bad Navy had lost, but that season ended rather well in the Meadowlands.

Saturday was so disappointing because Hampton had waited his turn, patiently, and when it came, he was doing fine. His passing could have improved, yes, but the team was 5-1 and starting to get some momentum.

That the injury happened right in front of the team bench was even more unlucky. When "the man" went down, especially in such a horrific manner, it must've been a shock to the system of everyone over there.

Watching Kaipo warm up before that 3rd and 7, he was taking practice snaps, some of the guys were talking to him and encouraging him, but he kept sneaking a peek out at the doctors working on Hampton a few yards away. I don't think he was ever really ready to play (and I can't say I blame him).

Despite the catatastrophe, I think Navy had a chance if it had been 3-0 at halftime. The illegal block call from the back judge--he was at least 30 yards from the play--when Navy converted that third down with around 2 minutes left was a killer. That led to a Rutgers score and, at 10-0, it changed everything.

It wasn't a one-possession game anymore. If Navy had regrouped, tied the score or taken the lead early in the second half, the crowd would really have become a factor.

But none of it happened and congrats to Rutgers, they have a really good team and most certainly deserved the win.

It's on to Notre Dame, and I think Navy will be fine. Goss has moved back to QB which should give Navy a passing threat there. Florida has rotated two QBs for much of this year and I wonder if that's what we're in store for. If I had to guess, I would start Bryant against the Irish, but that's still a long way off.

Notre Dame likes to run against nickel- and dime-defenses and throw against 4-3 and 3-4 defenses; the Mids are versatile enough to counter that, so I'm expecting a good game. Either way, Navy is one win from bowl eligibility.

The specifics of Hampton's injury will be known soon, and we all are certainly hoping and praying for the best. There is still much to be excited about, and it will be a nice tribute to Hampton, i.e. "the man," when Navy fights on every play, just as they always have. And always will.

Christian

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